Marchers had taken to the street on Saturday night, part of days-long protests in the wake of the killing of Clark, 22, an unarmed black man shot by police on March 18 in Sacramento. Demonstrations have been particularly tense since Thursday, when an independent autopsy report concluded that Clark was struck eight times, mostly in the back. The incident was recorded on police body cameras.
In a video published by ABC10, protesters took to busy Florin Road south of downtown Sacramento chanting slogans, including “Say his name! Stephon Clark!” amid moving traffic. A group of what appears to be about two dozen people approach a Sacramento County sheriff police cruiser and surround it. “When people are occupied, resistance is justified,” the crowd chants.
The cruiser’s lights flash and the siren blares. Another cruiser pulls up behind in an apparent move to back up the first vehicle.
“Back away from my vehicle,” a deputy says four times into a loudspeaker. After a few moments, the first cruiser slowly pulls forward, and a woman emerges from the crowd in between the vehicles, both SUVs.
The second cruiser strikes her and she hits the ground. In a video recorded by public defender and legal observer Guy Danilowitz, the woman’s white sign is lit up by the headlights before impact.
The longer ABC10 video does not show deputies circling back. Fire and rescue personnel arrive about seven minutes later to load the woman, Cleveland, onto a stretcher and take her to an ambulance.
Before the accident, Cleveland, a vocal activist at Sacramento City Council meetings, recounted how she felt she was unjustly arrested three years ago for allegedly touching a police officer during a tense meeting.
“I’m on a mission now. I will never allow a cop to touch me again,” she said before the accident. Nearly an hour later, she was lying face up on a city street after being struck by the SUV.
“I want to know what he was thinking,” Cleveland said from her hospital bed in the emergency room. “Is my life not that important?”
Cleveland suffered minor injuries to her head and elbow. She said that once she was on the ground, she quickly rolled out of the way, fearing the vehicle would run her over. “I could hear the tires roll past me,” she said.
“This was a hit-and-run,” Andre Young said after witnessing the incident. “Police have to be better than this.”
Phuong Le, a friend of Cleveland’s, rushed to her aid and held her head until paramedics arrived.
“He was really upset, and he accelerated,” Le said. “He didn’t get everyone to comply and move, so he just hit her.”
In a statement, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department said the collision occurred at “slow speeds” after protesters were “yelling while pounding and kicking the vehicles’ exterior.” One of the vehicles suffered scratches, dents and a shattered rear window that was caused by vandals and was unrelated to the collision, according to Sgt. Shaun Hampton.
The incident is under investigation by the California Highway Patrol while the department conducts an internal review, Hampton added. It was not immediately clear whether any disciplinary measures would be taken.
“He never even stopped. It was a hit-and-run,” Cleveland told the Sacramento Bee. “If I did that, I’d be charged. It’s disregard for human life.”
Danilowitz, who filmed the incident, was there as a legal observer to document any cases of civil rights violations or police overreach during demonstrations. The National Lawyers Guild oversees a network of such observers, who wear green fluorescent hats so police can clearly identify them, across the country.
Observers typically record videos and photos of police and demonstrator activity, but they generally hold on to the documentation unless it becomes part of a court case later, Danilowitz told The Washington Post on Sunday in a phone interview.
“But [the incident] was so egregious that it was in the public interest to get it out,” he said.
Danilowitz said a civilian involved in a similar collision would possibly be charged with various crimes, including assault with a deadly weapon and violation of a state law that says drivers “shall immediately stop the vehicle at the scene of the accident.”
“This is unusual to see potential criminal conduct by officers,” Danilowitz said. He added that dash cameras for county deputies are activated when the police lights are turned on, raising the possibility that the collision and the aftermath, including conversations inside the vehicle, were recorded.
The sheriff’s department did not immediately respond to a request asking whether the deputies involved appear to have violated laws.
Cres Vellucci, the region’s observer coordinator, also was at the scene. He told The Post that he flagged down a California Highway Patrol officer nearby in a police cruiser. He said he told the officer that a crime may have been committed and that there were witnesses and photographs to gather for an investigation.
“Get out of here, or I’ll arrest you,” the officer told him twice, Vellucci said. The officer then exited the car and chased him across the street, he added. The California Highway Patrol did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The night’s protests began as a quiet vigil for Clark, but the hit-and-run changed the tenor. Le joined a growing crowd of more than 200 protesters who marched on 65th Street. Many joined the march after learning of the incident on social media.
“There is no accountability with these people,” Le said. “That’s what this is showing.”
Protesters made their way to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department and were met with 15 squad cars blocking the department. Police were in riot gear as they faced the chanting protesters, who kept a distance from them in the parking lot.
Protesters refused to disperse and continued to block the main intersection, all the while redirecting frustrated commuters. Officers made two lines, preventing protesters from continuing the march. Some organizers called for protesters to disperse and go home. But an offshoot of the group remained, making their way to face the officers. One man grabbed a four-foot-long stick and began approaching the line before another protester confronted and stopped him.
Using a makeshift PA system mounted to a wheelchair, various speakers took the microphone in what amounted to an impromptu rally in the headlights of the waiting cars at the busy intersection.
“We need to continue to let our voices be heard!” said Maurice Conner, a teacher from John F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento, whose remarks were punctuated by the honking of impatient motorists. “Let them know that Stephon Clark, Mike Brown, Aiyana Jones, Tamir Rice … Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant — how many more names do we gotta name? Sandra Bland. All of these names that were named are also people that have been disenfranchised in every aspect of society.”
Mark Douglas and a friend were walking to Walmart on Florin Road when they heard the commotion in the distance: call-and-response chants — “Say his name!” “Stephon Clark!” — clashing with the din of a police helicopter unit above, warning the protesters through a loudspeaker that they could be arrested for participating.
“We heard it and I instantly knew what it was,” Douglas, 27, told a reporter. “So we came and joined the movement.”
He, too, took the microphone.
“I appreciate every race that is here!” Douglas shouted into the mic. “Because that means they’ll understand our struggle! They’ll understand what it means to be at the bottom because of our skin color!”
Also speaking was Marissa Barrera, whose family sued the city of Woodland after her 30-year-old brother, Michael Barrera, died in police custody last year.
“My heart goes out to Stephon’s family because nobody can ever understand — you guys can feel our pain, but you will never know until it happens,” she said. “And I pray to God it will never happen to you guys.”